Monday, 16 June 2014

Ironbridge World Heritage Site

Madeley Court
When the weather is dull but dry I find that the best way of making the most of the weather is to focus less on the scenery and more on the history of a place.  On the occasion of this walk we were faced with the possibility of a mostly overcast day and so our original plan of exploring somewhere scenic in Shropshire where we were staying took a bit of a back seat.  Armed with volume 14 of the Pathfinder series (Shropshire and Staffordshire) we decided upon walk no.15 as this would take us around most of the main sights of the Ironbridge World Heritage Site, the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

Making Friends
We were actually staying at a hotel en route (Madeley Court), so it made sense for us to do this walk for so many reasons especially as we wouldn’t need to go anywhere in the car.  It also meant that we didn’t start at the beginning of the walk but about half way round.

Former Shop
Madeley Court is a rather curious place.  It was originally built by an industrialist, Basil Brooke, in the 16th Century.  It has all the hallmarks of a well appointed and rather expensive country house hotel, except that in reality it is occupied by a hotel more at the budget end of the market.  It was certainly a memorable place to stay for its surroundings, but the rooms themselves were a lot more ordinary.  It seems like an opportunity missed, but then if it were in a more picturesque town it would probably have been out of our price range.

Coalbrookdale Church
Our route took us around the lake in front of the hotel and then headed eastwards.  In truth the first couple of miles of the walk were fairly ordinary but surprisingly rural considering that the appearance of the map suggested we were in the heart of Telford New Town.  The path meandered alongside fields and above us were threatening skies suggesting that rain might come at any time.  The tracks themselves weren’t easy going either – we found a lot of mud impeding our progress on the early section.  Yet, the children were happy with their surroundings and even more so when they found a field full of ponies that they said hello to.
View From The Rotunda

After awhile the industrial relics of the past started coming into sight.  Firstly we followed a goods railway for a short distance that didn’t look as though it was well used.  A glance at the map soon showed that this was part of a much wider network of lines, most of which were now defunct.  We followed the railway line down past an old ironworks and mill where it was quite obvious that it would once have been powered by the millpond that has now receded into nature and provides a lovely habitat for all manner of water-dwelling creatures.  A little further on and we took a little detour through a community orchard, where passers-by were encouraged to pick the fruit on the trees.  Alas a little early in the year for us to take part but nevertheless I did think it a wonderful idea.

How it Once Looked
Here we met a road lined with houses dating from the industrial age.  These were the well appointed ones, suggesting that they would have been owned by the mill-owning classes or the senior managers.  I imagine that even in the 21st Century they would be desirable places to live.  As we rounded the corner my eyes were drawn to an empty shop, not because it was empty but because it seemed to belong to a long gone era of shops.  I have no idea how long it has been empty but it had all the appearances of being from the 1960s or 1970s.  I rather wish it were still functioning for I would have loved going into such a time warp.

Iron Bridge
We were now in Coalbrookdale, famous as the place where smelting iron using coke first caught on and rendering my home county of Sussex as a redundant place for iron smelting since wood was no longer needed.  The old works is still functioning and is now under the ownership of Aga/ Rayburn, a rather suitable modern owner as they make very robust and rather traditional cookers.
View from the Iron Bridge

We were rather too focused on the old plant and missed the turn up to the old church that stood on the hill, rather mocking us.  A quick change of route plan that did not involve us doubling back took us instead up a rather steep hill to regain the right route.  The decision to head to the top was definitely the right one though as we soon came upon the best viewpoint of the whole walk in the shape of the site of The Rotunda.  Sadly the old rotunda is no longer with us but was built for local folk to admire the view of the industrial wonder of the industrial age in the shape of Ironbridge.  Even in the modern era this is quite a special view although I wonder how many visitors to this famous valley actually know of its existence?
Former Blast Furnace at Bedlam

After admiring the view for a few minutes we headed down the very steep flight of steps down into the valley below.  Despite Ironbridge’s gentrification and modernisation as a rather middle class looking place these days, it must have been a different story back in the 1780s.  Many of the buildings still exist including kilns and other manufacturing plants but have been turned into swanky eating establishments, twee craft shops or other places designed to cash in on the ‘visitor experience’.  Yet despite this overwhelming commercialism Ironbridge has retained an air of dignity and when we finally arrived at the bridge itself it was hard not to feel very impressed at its ingenuity.

Exploring the route to Bridgnorth
The bridge no longer has an important bridging role over the River Severn, other than for curious pedestrians, but has its place in history as the first major structure to have been built of cast iron, made possible by the recent discovery of smelting using coke.  No traffic has used the bridge since 1934 and the bridge is now one of the most important constructions from that era.
Jackfield Level Crossing

Our onward route was on the south side of the River Severn, over which we had just crossed.  For the next couple of miles our route took us along an old railway route, now turned cycle path.  This was still pretty mucky in places, which made us wonder how much rain this area had had.  Although the railway line itself was rather featureless and wooded for much of its length we did come across a viewpoint across to the old blast furnaces at Bedlam.  There is a famous painting of this old plant showing was a fearsome place it must have been.  The painting resembles a volcanic eruption in its intensity.  Further along the track we stopped at The Black Swan, a pub in the settlement of Jackfield.  Lunch here is highly recommended – we had a lovely meal washed down with a pint of the local brew.

Severn Footbridge at Coalport
Feeling fortified we had rather an unpleasant little section of path to negotiate across a building site created by pylon replacement work.  We took to the dismantled railway for a bit further rather than the scheduled route, which was closed for walkers.  We also passed the Jackfield Tile Museum, which sounded rather dull.  I assume that the interest is in the artwork of the tile rather than the methods of making them?  Anyhow it was far too tough a sell for our children to contemplate so we passed by.
Hay Inclined Plane

Eventually at Coalport we had to cross the river once again and found ourselves at the foot of the Hay Inclined Plane.  This former rail/ canal interchange looked rather derelict now especially as the canal was covered with a sheen of duckweed.  The complex here reminded us of the one we encountered at Peak Forest a few years back near Whaley Bridge.

Coalport Industrial Complex
We popped into the shop at one of the museums here and found some rather inviting looking stuff for purchase although it was completely impractical for us to consider as we still had a couple of miles to walk so we left empty handed.  Our onward route took us along the route of another old railway line, this time the former branch to Coalport from Wellington.  Truth be told the route wasn’t the most exciting apart from the tunnel about half a mile north of Coalport, which provoked some echoing amusement for the children as they passed through.  Eventually we found ourselves back at Madeley Court after a couple of miles of railway walking interrupted by a road that has usurped some of the route.
Coalport Tunnel

This walk was a good tour of many of the industrial sites in the Ironbridge Gorge area and if armed with one of the museum passports that are on offer, could make for a good link walk between museums.  I have to say though that of our party I was probably the only one who would really have been interested.  The girls were happy with the length of walk, some of the industrial relics they saw, the view of Ironbridge but perhaps most of all they were happy with their pub lunch halfway along the route J

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